Ryan Hanley spent the summer before he turned 18 thinking about organizing a transcontinental bike ride to raise money for cancer. When he entered the Johns Hopkins University, he set about selling the idea and recruiting classmates and friends to ride 4,000 miles.
The maiden effort that he had dubbed 4K for Cancer — which raised $80,000 in 2002 in memory of Hanley's father, who had died of cancer when Hanley was 13 — operated under the university's auspices for five years before becoming an independent nonprofit organization.
Now, 4K for Cancer is merging with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, a Columbia-based advocacy and support organization.
Founded in 1997 by three-time cancer survivor Doug Ulman, brother of County Executive Ken Ulman, the UCF is one of only a dozen nonprofit organizations in the country that focus solely on young adult patients and their families, said Brock Yetso, executive director.
"This merger will make each of our organizations stronger," said Yetso, whose mother died four weeks after she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2000. "Society is recognizing that cancer is the No. 1 killer of our population and getting on the bandwagon."
The missions and personal experiences of the two staffs are so complementary that they seemed destined to align, he said. Cancer turned most of their lives upside-down in one way or another, and motivated them to re-evaluate their priorities.
"There were 70,000 young adults diagnosed with cancer across the country last year — eight times the number of children," he said, quoting statistics from the National Cancer Institute. "While there are well-funded organizations that advocate for kids and those that advocate for older adults, there are not a lot in between."
Merging the UCF's focus on connecting, educating and supporting young adults with cancer with 4K's appeal to college students who want to join in the fight will help the UCF achieve the success of other age-specific campaigns, Yetso said.
"Our business model was already based on collaboration and partnerships," he said. "We're all about not reinventing the wheel."
While 4K will retain its identity, staff, programming and website, it will become a program under the umbrella of the UCF, said Brian Satola, assistant director. The 4K staff has already moved into the UCF's Baltimore office; the UCF's Howard County office is located on Stevens Forest Road.
"We give them a lot of credit for putting egos aside and seeing the larger picture," said Satola, whose sister faced leukemia as a child and is a two-time cancer survivor. "This merger will enable us to leverage more resources and have a greater impact. It was a question of taking something great and making it even greater."
Jessica Protasio, a children's instructor and research specialist at the Savage branch of the Howard County Library, said she's "doing great" since her liver transplant in March. But it was the support she received from the UCF during a series of setbacks leading up to her surgery that made all the difference, she said.
And Protasio has been through a lot. An appendectomy was canceled last summer while she was waiting to be taken to the operating room so hospital physicians could further examine her liver. Testing revealed a tumor.
Months later, she awoke from anesthesia after a scheduled liver resection, in which only cancerous parts of the liver are removed, to learn that procedure was stopped when surgeons discovered her cancer had spread. A transplant became her only option as she became very ill.
"When I came out of appointments and my patient navigator was waiting for me … that just meant so much," she recalled.
UCF patient navigators stationed in several area hospitals offer educational guidance and emotional support to 2,000 clients a year, Yetso said. "We're there to hold their hands up to a point, but we also empower them to handle their treatment," he explained.
UCF employees have provided everything from transportation to shoulders to cry on, Protasio said, even hooking her up with a "cancer buddy" who'd had a similar type of cancer and understood what she was going through.
As if that wasn't enough, Protasio now participates in UCF events, which include walks, runs and triathlons. Soon 4K for Cancer's cycling fundraisers will be added to that mix.
"I've learned that it's exciting to help people and be part of the community of we, instead of the community of me," she said. "This is an amazing organization."
Dr. Susan Moriarty, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Columbia, said her practice has helped fund UCF events and looks forward to the possibilities the merger will bring.
"Young adults with cancer are not in the news a lot, but this is a critical group and merging with another group that involves college students is brilliant," she said.
Yetso couldn't agree more.
"We've each been able to build an army of supporters using sports," he said of the two organizations.
"But the Ulman Fund wasn't immune to the economic downturn these last three years. With a 50 to 70 percent dip in donations, we were begging people to attend events, and we had to lay off three employees," he said.
"The old way wasn't working, and we're becoming more innovative," Yetso said. "The key is working with people who can help us do our job better."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun